Friday, April 2, 2010

Government & Social Media: How PR Can Bridge the Gap (Part I)

There are many reasons why governments at all levels are wary of exploration in the social media realm. For starters, governments are elected and they get and stay that way because their constituents are (relatively) happy. That's why it's understandable that governments do not wish to leave themselves vulnerable to criticism in a public platform where the voicing of displeasure can lead to a downward spiral. What's more, governments are always criticized anyway- by the mainstream media, the public, and anyone with a pen chance for analysis. It's a reason why internal communications shops within ministries spend significant time and effort working with their policy advisors and staffers to devise simple, core key messages which politicians tend to stick to at all costs.

The Fels Institute of Government is the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in public policy and public management, and they conducted some interesting research in July 2009 to find out the extent to which governments are experimenting with social media. They found that only 9% of surveyed US municipalities had a presence on Twitter with more than 500 followers. Considering these cities were ranging in size from less than 70,000 to more than 1,000,000 residents, that ratio is not too promising. However, the report showed the perceived importance of social media to overall government communications strategy was a 3.7 out of 5, indicating strong interest.

So how can PR practitioners harness this desire and integrate the medium with the machine?

First, it's important to realize that governments generally want to create a direct line of communication with their constituents. They just don't know how to do it online or what to expect, especially since having a hard-to-navigate website is still considered a big deal. But they're interested. And they want to reach younger demographics who are difficult to target through traditional channels.

Social media is a great opportunity to do that. It's more:
  • Interactive vs authoritative
  • Conversational vs story-based
  • Personal vs institutional
  • Narrowcast vs broadcast (in that even a large government social media audience is small relative to radio or TV)
And users:
  • Generate much of the value through responding comments and recommendations
  • Guard their online experiences by exercising discretion over the information they subscribe to
Learning how to communicate in this world where stakeholders have a voice can mean a big cultural shift for governments, especially since today's tools are so different from how governments are used to communicating.

Toronto Mayor David Miller (@mayormiller) is a great example of how a publicly elected official can use Twitter to speak about topics of interest while still maintaining personal identity. As an avid Twitter user, Mayor Miller tweets about his day-to-day activities and gives taxpayers an idea about what publicly elected officials do. He informs users whom he's about to meet that day, shares reactions to speeches he gives at conferences, posts pictures with people of interest, answers questions, and expresses himself in an informal yet engaging way that serves to build rapport with more than 11,000 followers- many of them young Torontonians.

Probably the best example of how social media can work to create a community for government can be found with Students for Barack Obama, set up in 2006 by student Meredith Segal after hearing Obama's extraordinary 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Long before Obama announced his candidacy, this group had already ballooned to 62,000 members, ready and waiting for his campaign to begin. Today the group has more than 250,000 supporters and is officially recognized through President Obama's Facebook Fan page. This online community served as a forum for public action, producing youth voter turnout that could have made the difference to Obama's margin of victory.

PR can help bridge the gap by showing these and other relevant examples to demonstrate how high-level issues can be handled or solved, and opportunities created through the use of blogs, online videos, and social media platforms. A well-crafted internal presentation to educate senior decision makers can increase this understanding in social media's value.

Can you think of any other large bureaucratic organizations that could benefit from social media?

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